The job is only half done

Sardar Singh gets past a Canadian player during a preliminary match. He was named the ‘Player of the Tournament'.-PTI

India qualifying for the 2012 Olympics is all right, but the team has to raise its game in order to face the challenges in London. By Y. B. Sarangi.

On July 2, 2005, the International Hockey Federation (FIH) had uploaded an article on its website quoting an International Olympic Committee (IOC) report that said hockey was one of the most-watched sport on television at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

“Hockey received the most coverage and viewer hours in Asian countries, specifically it was popular in China, India and South Korea which made up 40 per cent of the total Asian coverage and generated 92 per cent of the viewer hours,” the FIH portal had quoted the IOC report as saying.

The last time that the Indian hockey team had participated in the Olympics was in Athens. India missed the next Games in Beijing following its debacle in the qualifier in Santiago. There is no doubt that the absence of India, a growing economy with a population of over a billion, in hockey would have impacted the television viewership in a big way during the Beijing Olympics.

The FIH would have heaved a sigh of relief after India's qualification for the London Games. On home turf and against five weaker sides (India was the top-ranked team), India was the firm favourite to win the lone Olympic berth from the qualification event held at the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium in New Delhi. Many felt that the event was “designed” to bring India back to Olympic hockey. The FIH CEO, Kelly Fairweather, disagreed though. He maintained that the teams were selected only on the basis of world rankings.

India's Chief Coach Michael Nobbs too had a similar opinion. “There are no easy games in sport,” he insisted during the run-up to the qualifier. However, one understood later that Nobbs was only trying to make doubly sure nothing went out of hand. He wanted the team, which was high on fitness, thanks to the tireless efforts of trainer David John, to maintain its intensity through the tournament and it didn't matter who India played — whether it was a strong opponent or an inexperienced side like Singapore, ranked No. 41.

Nobbs left nothing to chance. A lot of preparation went into India's campaign in the tournament and the coach tried to control whatever he could. In hindsight, it turned out to be a masterstroke.

The Indian players, known for their fragility against soft sides, were programmed well to carry out relentless attacks. They did not have the time to think of pressures.

A string of convincing wins was capped by an overwhelming 8-1 victory against the hard-tackling France in the final as India, which remained unbeaten in the tournament, earned its ticket to the 2012 Olympics in style.

India's busy forward-line, comprising Shivendra Singh, S. V. Sunil, Sarvanjit Singh, Gurvinder Singh Chandi, Tushar Khandker and Danish Mujtaba, stole the show. The midfield, led by the ‘Player of the Tournament' Sardar Singh, did its job with near-perfection. The defence, manned by Ignace Tirkey, Sandeep Singh and V. R. Raghunath, gave an improved performance to thwart the counterattacks.

The highlight of the tournament, however, was Sandeep's drag-flicks that brought him 15 goals, including two hat-tricks. With 16 goals — one of them coming from a penalty stroke — in six matches he emerged the top-scorer of the tournament.

Sandeep, 26, reciprocated the tremendous confidence shown in him by Nobbs as he scored more than 11 per cent of the total goals scored (139) in the tournament. He scored 36 per cent of the goals (44) that India struck in the tournament.

Another heartening factor was the tremendous improvement shown by Sandeep and his fellow drag-flicker, V. R. Raghunath, in defence. Under the watchful eyes of the experienced Dilip Tirkey, the two fine-tuned their skills and underwent some drills which proved beneficial during the tournament.

“Tirkey's inputs helped a lot and you could see the difference,” said Sandeep, who was the ‘Player of the Final.'

The victory, an emotional one for the hockey lovers in the country, evoked heartfelt appreciation. This could be gauged from the rousing support that thousands of fans, who had thronged the National Stadium on February 26 (the day of the final), gave the Indian team.

Nobbs justified his decisions, including the hard ones he had made by dropping some experienced players. The Australian wanted a team that was high on form and fitness and nurtured no egos.

“It is a happy bunch with no infighting, no politics and the desire to perform. The players are happy and confident… This is just a start,” said the coach after the memorable win.

“They have a never-say-die approach and are confident. This is how we have to be ruthless,” he added.

Amidst the shower of praise and cash awards, the team knows that its job is only half done. It has to enhance its standard to be able to hold itself high and face up to greater challenges in the Olympics.

Through his methodical approach, Nobbs has been able to instil self-belief in the Indian side and lift its performance substantially within six months. In the next few months, he has to provide the team the extra fillip which will enable India meet the challenges in London.